Online Writing is a Secret Form of Spiritual Practice
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Online Writing is a Secret Form of Spiritual Practice

I signed up for Write of Passage thinking that it would make me a better writer. I'd become a successful person who could influence the masses with clever words. Get. More. People. To. Buy. My. Tea. That didn’t happen at all. But something better did, something more profound.

With my friends, this is usually when I took a pause in explaining Write of Passage

—maybe I joked about how it sounds like I’ve joined a cult. But it also bothered me. I really wanted to share the genuine joy of what I’ve discovered to my friends, but I ironically did not have the words.

The right words, at least. I said something about “personal monopoly/brand” and “audience building” or even “a way to clarify my thinking.” Straight-up copy from the course website. The friends would nod, and said something like “wow that’s so amazing,” “wish I have time to do that,” or “I hate writing but good for you I guess.” And we’ll move on. Maybe I pushed them to subscribe to my newsletter. (Have you?)

None of these concepts described how I actually changed. It was like a weird itch in a place I couldn’t quite scratch, and I wasn’t alone. When I spoke with my Write of Passage friends, it was clear that many of us feel downright transmogrified. Not just transformed, but in a strange, mystical way.

Here’s what had actually changed: I now see writing as integral to my spiritual practice. Like a true rite of passage, I stumbled out of the wilderness with wild ideas and wilder ambitions. A renewed sense of purpose and direction, supported by a vibrant tribe.

But how? It took me a while to figure out the hidden answers. These secrets will change the way you think about writing, and maybe even the way you think about spiritual practice.

Ready?

Writing online is a spiritual practice that provides a conduit to subconscious thoughts, a shortcut to meaningful friendships, and both lead to freedom from stale identities that no longer serve us.

I know, I know. It’s a bit much, doesn’t it? But it’s not as complicated as it seems. It just takes a moment to look behind the scenes and recognize how our minds work. Let’s go!

1. A Conduit to Subconscious Thoughts

When I signed up for Write of Passage, I thought I’ll learn “content marketing.” Churn out blogs and social media posts and email newsletters about why my tea is so great. Something something SEO optimization. But the first writing prompt given knocked me off my feet—it was to jot down my twelve favorite problems to think about:

  1. How can I balance the drive for self-improvement and helping others against unskillful attachment and clinging to desired conditions and outcomes?
  2. How can I share with others what I perceive may be of benefit and encourage uptake, without being a snake oil salesperson (or having the fear of being perceived as one, stop me from sharing?)
  3. How can I share more of myself with my family without the anxiety or fear of causing them suffering and worry?
  4. How can I balance interactions with the wider world versus cultivating inner qualities that lead to freedom?
  5. How can I worry less about not being a perfectly enlightened being equipped to talk about spirituality, and embrace that I'm a flawed human being instead?
  6. How can I be wise about how I spend my effort in helping others to optimize impact?
  7. How can I shorten the distance between having an idea and sharing it? (Includes: better writing and storytelling skills, cultivating an audience, etc.)
  8. How can I do a better job looking after myself financially so that I will not be a burden to others when I am old and/or sick?
  9. How can I optimize my mental and physical health/energy on a day-to-day basis to reach my goals?
  10. What can I do to leave a lasting positive impact on the world, after I die?
  11. How can I assess if I am even asking the right/appropriate questions to address a problem and adjust accordingly?
  12. How can I remind myself to reflect upon these problems instead of being distracted by the problem/fire of the day? 🙂

Welp, that wasn’t really about selling tea! (Maybe question 2, and even that evolved as I went along.) It was immediately illuminating that what I actually thought about was my place in the spiritual world.

But here’s the thing—it’s not like I didn’t know that I think about these topics, it’s that I had not given myself permission to make them front-and-center of my life. I had segregated my spiritual side to a side hustle, rather than an integrated part of my being.

So how does this story link writing with spiritual practice? It resolved a question I’ve always had about how to best practice the Noble Eightfold Path, which leads to spiritual enlightenment in the Buddhist context.

There’s a list of eight components:

Noble Eightfold Path

  • Skillful View
  • Skillful Intention
  • Skillful Speech/Communication
  • Skillful Action
  • Skillful Livelihood
  • Skillful Effort
  • Skillful Mindfulness
  • Skillful Concentration/Stillness/Meditation

Western mainstream Buddhism emphasizes Mindfulness and Meditation. But what about the rest? One fundamental tenet of the Noble Eightfold Path is that they support each other, like the tent poles of a teepee.** Writing is a way to support my reach towards other important components of the Eightfold Path. Here, the twelve favorite problems prompted me to examine my intentions through accessing my subconscious thoughts.

However, it is challenging to remember that writing is a skill that helps us think, besides being a craft that produces tangible outcomes like this essay. I used to undervalue introspective writing, like journaling or answering prompts like the twelve problems, because they were for myself instead of an audience. But it’s this foundational work that helped me see my intentions, and ultimately produced public-facing work I’m most proud of.

For Write of Passage, I ended up writing five essays:

One of them ended up being about tea, but the essay was infused with more soul than it would have been if I had set out with only selling tea in mind, without articulating the deeper intention of self-compassion.

2. A Shortcut to Meaningful Friendships

The reason I had even heard about Write of Passage was because of my friend Greg Frontiero. I met him through a mutual discord server, and he is FANTASTIC at selling his product, Noowave Coffee. He was everything I wanted to be—his personality POPs out on the page. He’s into tech and nootropics! And he’s a semi-pro wrestler who wears bright pink leggings! He’s in your face! Wham! Bam! I looked forward to his newsletters because rampant energy peppered his prose. And I wanted to write like him. Be him. Learn his craft.

What I didn’t fully appreciate was that it takes more than finding your personal monopoly/brand. Write of Passage talked a lot about the concept of serendipity—the idea that our writing can create opportunities by letting our ideas build our personal network. But that still sounded like a bunch of buzzwords to me.

What I’ve learned since is that writing is not a solo activity. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a tribe to write one essay. In Write of Passage, we spent a substantial amount of time providing constructive feedback and getting to know each other's hearts through our drafts. (This piece you’re reading, included!)

In the world of editing, we were all naked and vulnerable. We showed each other our half-formed thoughts, our dreams, our fears. There was no faster way to realize our shared humanity. And to have taken inspiration from others and incorporated them into a piece you’re working on...it’s as though the union of the ideas led to pieces of ourselves being connected. It was magic!

In reference to the Noble Eightfold Path, I see that writing is a way in which we can practice Skillful communication. The core idea is to practice compassion through the way we communicate, and writing has the added benefit of being a slower form of communication compared to speaking. There’s enough time for us to ensure that we are helpful and kind in the way we write and give feedback to each other.

If it took a tribe to write an essay, it took just one connection to show me that what I cared about wasn’t a topic I didn’t have permission to discuss. Although this essay is clearly about spiritual practice, in the past I had hid this passion from my friends, because it seemed weird in conventional society. I read books on Buddhism in private, and only my wife knew how much time I spent watching Buddhist YouTube. (Yes, it’s a thing.) Sure, I went to Insight Meditation Center...but it was a separate social circle. And even then, I was a student who absorbed the teachings passively: a spiritual consumer instead of a spiritual creator.

My friendship with Anthony Polanco through Write of Passage solidified my passion for being a spiritual creator. He is unabashedly committed to helping others with their spiritual path from a Christian perspective. By getting to know him through reading and editing his writing, I realized I had subconsciously discounted my passion for the same topic from the Buddhist point of view. It turned out all the encouragement I needed was learning that I was not alone in having this passion. (And there are more friends from Write of Passage with whom I’ve resonated on this topic, with future stories to tell. Chris Wong, Lyssa Menard, Jacob Roberts, Salman Ansari, to name a few!)

In Buddhism, there is the concept of spiritual friendship to support the path to enlightenment. But most people are not aware of its importance. The Buddha’s attendant, Ānanda, once asked him if spiritual friendship was “half the holy life.”

The Buddha answered,

Not so, Ānanda! Not so, Ānanda! This is the entire holy life, Ānanda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a person has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that they will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.

It’s interesting how he didn’t say mindfulness or meditation, isn't it?

3. A Path to Freedom from Stale Identities

In Write of Passage, they taught us to create our personal monopoly/branding through identifying the intersection of three niches we occupy. Yes, I felt I finally found mine after finishing the course—it must be science, spirituality, and relatability, right?! But yet, the most impactful change wasn’t finding my personal monopoly per se. It was seeing that it wasn’t a fixed entity for the rest of my online/real life.

Imagine a world where we have many pairs of sunglasses permanently attached to our heads from birth—it would be impossible to know that what we’re seeing isn’t representative of the real world. Writing is like taking off our sunglasses to clean the lens or to examine if it’s scratched up. It's how we can put our identity on paper, so we can review it outside of ourselves.

Now that I have a small body of work, I can see that I have other topics I want to write about. Like testing my vaginal microbiome! Or an essay about multipurpose cloths in different cultures, like waffle-weave towels versus tenuguis! I couldn’t see past topics that popped up in my mind often, because I was not done “processing” until I wrote them down. But once written, I am released from the stream of rumination that subconsciously shaped my identity.

Furthermore, writing with feedback from others is a way for us to see ourselves in a whole new light. Identity is a funny concept in that way—it is what we think others see. But in reality, our view of ourselves rarely match up to what others think. I’m grateful for the supportive friends through this writing journey who helped me realize that these spirituality topics are something some people want to read about. And I continue to see that I’m a multifaceted human being like everyone else, with no need to confine myself to a preconceived identity. With this evolution gained through writing, I started building Compassion Accelerator with my co-founder. This was one facet of the mission behind honeyritual tea. But now I recognize the potential to directly help others with their personal growth, since it’s a topic I enjoyed sharing with Write of Passage friends so much.

Of the remaining Eightfold Path components, Skillful View is the most relevant to identity, and therefore the most challenging to address. This is because our view is the lens through which we perceive the world, and it’s hard to be “outside” of our own identity.

And here’s the ultimate twist from the Buddhist perspective: one of the core teachings is the understanding of not-self. It means that we’re on a journey to discover which parts of ourselves we can let go of (by seeing that they are not part of our "self"), which leads to peace and freedom. The concept of identity is one of them! This is a much longer discussion, and I recommend The Art of Disappearing by Ajahn Brahm as further reading. In short, Skillful Mindfulness and Meditation re-emerge as supportive components, since both lead to clearer mind states that allow us to see that identity is not a part of us and allow us to let go. Hence, the Eightfold Path components are interdependent.

The Noble Writing Path

There’s a lot of focus on Mindfulness and Meditation of the Noble Eightfold Path, but Intention, Communication, and View are just as important. Therefore, I propose the Noble Writing Path as an actionable way to round out our spiritual practice.

To summarize:

1) Skillful Intention:

Writing for ourselves is a conduit to subconscious thoughts, allowing us to see our hidden side. As Charlie Bleecker, Write of Passage Head Mentor, put it: “writing is more honest than thinking.” Your mind can’t trick you the way it usually does.

2) Skillful Communication:

Writing with a community is a shortcut to build meaningful relationships REALLY quickly. We are but a vessel for ideas coursing through our neurons, and resonating ideas have a natural affinity for each other. Be seen and heard through words on the page.

3) Skillful View:

Publishing online is a path to freedom from stale identities that no longer serve us. We carry around preconceived notions of ourselves that fossilize when unexamined. Writing is a craft that allows us to see that our identities are self-created, and something that we can play with instead of hanging on for dear life.

On a practical level, it takes time to figure out one’s authentic voice, evolve it with the help of others, and see that we may benefit from letting it go. But if Skillful Intention, Communication, and View are just part of the Noble Eightfold Path…and there’s still Mindfulness and Meditation...not to mention the other three, Action, Effort, and Livelihood, that wasn’t even discussed in this essay..isn’t it a lot of work to get enlightened?!

The “good news” as my teacher Gil Fronsdal puts it, is that the Buddha said that enlightened people continue to practice the Noble Eightfold Path. So there's no need to worry about how long it takes to get enlightened, because there’s no difference in how we will practice anyway. Congratulations! Let’s keep writing.

Footnotes:

* Lists are common in Buddhism because back then, they had to memorize all the teachings since they wrote nothing down. So mnemonics and lists were important memory aids!

**It’s normally described as spokes of a wheel or an Indra’s net, but a teepee seems more intuitive to me for showing interdependencies...

Colophon

Here's a Miro board showing the evolution of this essay, following The Writing Studio method.

HUGE thanks to:

  • Michael Dean, who taught me a whole new way to write and to practice.
  • Chris Wong
  • Charlie Bleecker
  • Lyssa Menard
  • Louis Alley
  • IO Levoi
  • Pat Simmons
  • Tobi Emonts-Holley
  • Paulin Byusa
  • The Writing Studio crew
  • Christine Kwong